×

Losing cultural context in emergency communication can be a matter of life and death

Migrant workers in a Florida community hit hard by Hurricane Irma line up for donated supplies. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Losing cultural context in emergency communication can be a matter of life and death

Migrant workers in a Florida community hit hard by Hurricane Irma line up for donated supplies. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Losing cultural context in emergency communication can be a matter of life and death

Migrant workers in a Florida community hit hard by Hurricane Irma line up for donated supplies. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Losing cultural context in emergency communication can be a matter of life and death

Migrant workers in a Florida community hit hard by Hurricane Irma line up for donated supplies. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Being able to distribute disaster information can be a matter of life or death.

Amer Hamad Issa Abukhalaf, University of Florida and Jason von Meding, University of Florida

Can a butterfly in Chicago cause a tornado in Hong Kong? A metaphorical concept called the “butterfly effect” describes the sensitivity of a system to minor changes. The use of this concept has grown significantly in many technical fields, such as information technology and computer science. We wondered if it was applicable to emergency communications.

As part of a new study, we interviewed bilingual migrants in Florida. Looking at data from 10 languages, we noticed how minor deviations in translation can cause significant differences in understanding. Such misunderstandings can have catastrophic consequences.

Clear language is essential in emergency communication. Being able to distribute disaster information can be a matter of life or death. We’ve seen how migrant communities are often hit harder than others by disasters, such as in Hurricane Katrina, when many failed to evacuate in part because storm warnings were broadcast mainly in English. Many migrants to the U.S. do not arrive with a clear understanding of basic hazard terms in English, such as “hurricane” and “tornado,” that are used by local weather channels and in emergency communications.

This is a simmering public health issue, with clear implications for migrant communities. This kind of failure in emergency communication can be described as disaster linguicism – language-based discrimination that minorities can face during disasters.

Disagree with this article?
Create an Opposing View
Add Related Article